by Hugh Hunter
Thwarted passions abound in “The Seagull,” currently running at Allens Lane Theater in West Mt. Airy. Anton Chekhov staged it as a “comedy” in 1896, and It flopped. But two years later the legendary Stanislavsky revived it as a “tragedy,” and the rest is history.
The melding of comedy and tragedy is clear from the start when Masha (Asaki Kuruma) tells us she dresses in black because “I am mourning for my life.” The assemblage of characters in “The Seagull” was a Theater of the Absurd before there was a name for it.
Set in a lakeside estate, poor schoolteacher Simon loves Masha, but Masha loves Constantine, an aspiring playwright. Constantine however loves Nina, an aspiring actress, but Nina loves Trigorin, a successful writer. And there is lots more where that came from.
It is like the scenarios in modern soap operas — “One Life to Live” and such. But those long-drawn-out characters with all their pregnant pauses and significant looks take themselves quite seriously. Chekhov’s sad and comic folk know their lives are ridiculous.
There are many thoughtful performances in Director Josh Hitchens’ fine cast. Hilary Kayle Crist excels as Arkadina, the egoistic veteran actress, and there is wonderful chemistry between Adam Darrow and Megan Edelman in the difficult roles of Constantine and Nina.
But short of setting “The Seagull” in the Catskills, the production does all it can to take the play out of Russia. Costumes are not ethnic; incidental music is winsome and contemporary (think Joni Mitchell and friends), and large paintings of evergreens seem like a joke.
This approach goes along with the modern itch to stage classic drama out of its period, trimming plays to a thematic essence, presumably to help you understand in universal terms what the playwright “really meant to say.” But I have little idea what Chekhov meant to say, and I doubt he did either. Like Constantine, Chekhov is searching for “new art forms.” It is ironic that the Allens Lane production tries to disabuse you of the one thing you do know for sure: “The Seagull” is desperately Russian. And it is the Russia of a particular time and place. The landed gentry in “The Seagull” are short on money, impoverished by the recent emancipation of the serfs. (Chekhov’s father was a freed serf.)
In retrospect, “The Seagull” seems prophetic. Though its characters live together in shared self-awareness, the community itself cannot act with force and direction. The same sort of ineffectual humanity must have populated the Kerensky Provisional Government of 1917.
For sure, “The Seagull” is universal in its appeal, but Chekhov’s world is also singular and Russian, and at Allens Lane I missed the feeling of sitting on the shaded veranda of a dacha and hearing the distant strain of a balalaika from time to time.
Allens Lane is located at Allens Lane near McCallum. “The Seagull” will run through Feb 2. Reservations available at 215- 248-0546.
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